In this third of four articles exploring sensory support for emotional regulation, Sensory Engagement Specialist and Sensory Projects founder, Joanna Grace, explores how we can use our noses to support wellbeing. This article is based on one of Joanna’s free leaflet guides, more can be found at: www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk/guides
Our uniquely emotional sense of smell
In our settings, we often play with colour and texture, but how often do you employ your children’s olfactory sense: their sense of smell?
Our olfactory sense is unique among the senses, being the only one processed directly by our limbic brain – our emotional brain. All the other senses can end up with limbic responses but they are processed by the thalamus first – the thinking brain – which acts as a kind of ‘gate-keeper’.
You probably have a smell or two that when you smell them transport you through time to a special place. Usually, such scent time-travel experiences take us to happy memories which is wonderful, but from time to time they can link to frightening times – no one likes the smell of hospitals!
This emotional processing of the sense of smell means that scent has a big effect on our emotional wellbeing. An engagement with your sense of smell has actually been shown to be preventative of stress, depression and anxiety. So we might do well to take that old phrase “wake up and smell the roses” literally! The connection between scent and wellbeing goes both ways, and people who are depressed often experience a physical impairment to their sense of smell. This, in turn, often affects their eating habits, as much of the joy we get from food comes to us through our olfactory sense. People no longer receiving the input they once had from food, will either eat more to try and find it, or go off eating as it no longer holds the joy it once had, which accounts for why people experiencing depression often find it affects their weight.
The good news is that as you go about sourcing smelly activities for your setting, you’ll be doing something good for your own mental wellbeing too – sniffing stuff is good for everyone!
Bonding with our noses
Scent is very important when it comes to bonding. Although we may feel ourselves to be very different to animals, we still choose our partners partly dependent on their smell. Our personal scents carry information about our genetic makeup and we are likely to be more attracted to someone whose scent indicates biological compatibility. For those closest to us, especially children, our personal scent is naturally very comforting and smelling that scent helps us to form tight, emotional-bonds with one another.
By scent I do not mean we stink. There are two types of smells: volatile ones and pheromone ones. It is the volatile ones that we think of as being “smelly.” Pheromone ones are much more subtle – they are not B.O. – they are the scent of a person. If you have ever smelt the clothes of a loved one who has died, or held a partner’s t-shirt to your face, you’ve probably had an experience of searching for these smells.
You might think that you do not want pheromones racing around your setting but actually they can be a very useful tool for supporting children who are anxious or who have attachment problems. If you’re curious to learn more, look at the “Smell the Roses” guide on www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk guides or connect with me on Facebook where I share photos of sensory-makes, some of which are connected to sharing pheromone smells therapeutically. There is also further information in my book “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” published by Routledge.
Playing with smells
Fostering an engagement with smell is a fun way to support mental wellbeing. Different smells will produce different emotional responses. Try some of the following:
- Smells with heavy base notes, for example chamomile or bergamot
- Zingy smells, for example peppermint or lemongrass
- Sickly-sweet smells, for example, banana or vanilla
- Make some smelly playdough – simply add drops of essential oil to a plain dough. Handling the dough will warm it and make the scent stronger
- Offer the children fresh herbs to play with. They can practice their knife skills, snip them with scissors, or rub and squash them with their fingers to release the scent. Making potions is a favourite hobby of my small assistant (aged 4) and a great way to explore scent. Provide warm water for potions to increase the scent released (as hot things release more odour than cool things)
- Dab a little scent on to a cuddly toy as if it were wearing perfume
- Take time when shopping to smell different products
- Find things in the natural environment to smell
- Make a scent shaker: to do this, you need an empty pop-lid drinks bottle or an empty Pringles tube (other crunchy tube-based snacks are available!) Use a heated metal prong to melt small holes into the sides of the bottle or the lid of the tube. Be sure to have the windows open as the fumes are not pleasant. Pop fresh herbs into the container and secure the lid. With the drinks bottle you can just tighten it beyond the point where children would be able to open it, with the tube you may want to tape the lid on. Along with the herbs, place a small piece of gravel or a small dryer ball, something which when shaken will bash the herbs causing them to release their scent. When the child first picks up the container it will have a mild smell, shaking it will make the smell stronger.
It is easy to overwhelm people with smells, so it’s a good idea to just play with one or two at a time. Rather than have ten smells to play with at once, simply take time out from your day as it progresses to stop and smell the roses…or the grass… or the dinner…or the soap….Enjoy your connection with the olfactory world – it is a gorgeous, gorgeous thing!
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.